Is a good novel smarter than its author? Kundera thought so…


One of the foremost writers of our times, Milan Kundera, has died, and the retrospectives and memories will be flowing for quite some time to come. The Book Haven has written about the Franco-Czech author before here and here and here. The author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, among other novels, was 94.

Is the author smarter than his novel? Non, žádný, ne, says Kundera: “Every true novelist listens for that suprapersonal wisdom, which explains why great novels are always a little more intelligent than their authors. Novelists who are more intelligent than their books should go into another line of work.”

According to his publisher Miroslav Balaštík: “For me, Milan Kundera is one of the few last great classical authors who consider writing to be more than a single novel or story but a continual process. A process that includes essays and a reflection on literary tradition, what literature means and where one fits as a writer. I think that is one of his contributions to both Czech and world literature.” 

Trevor Cribben Merrill, who met the author on several occasions, writes a retrospective in a new magazine Compact

“The lure of a Kundera novel for American readers, I suspect, often had to do with a kind of political voyeurism. As a college student in the late 1990s, I didn’t just identify with the protagonist of The Unbearable Lightness, Tomas, a surgeon who critiques the ruling party, loses his job, and has to wash windows for a living—I wanted to be him. Contemplated from a safe remove, his status as a victim of totalitarian oppression was positively enviable—not to mention that the window-washer job brought the doctor into regular contact with lonely housewives.

“The allure of victimhood has hardly waned in the subsequent decades, and many of the obituaries and homages to Kundera have emphasized his role as a Czech dissident (he and his wife immigrated to France in 1975), as if to suggest that the enduring value of his oeuvre consists mostly in its portrayal of life in the Stalinist trenches. One posthumous appreciation says Kundera’s novels “brought news of sophisticated Eastern-European societies trembling under the threat of Soviet repression.” The sex also gets a predictable nod (‘RIP to one of the great horny novelists of the 20th century, Milan Kundera’).”

Trevor, author of Minor Indignities, discusses the influence of his friend René GIrard on the Czech author:

“Kundera could be described as the great revealer of what the French literary critic and philosopher René Girard called mimetic desire in its late, hyperbolic stage. He was a novelist descended not just from Kafka and Solzhenitsyn, but also from Cervantes, Dostoevsky, and Proust.” (Read his 1980 interview with Philip Roth here.)

An excerpt from Trevor Merrill’s short retrospective:

“Kundera was a self-described hedonist. Yet he observed that a good novel is more intelligent than its author. His fiction is full of unhappy threesomes (“Even when she was with Eva, whom she loved very much and of whom she was not jealous, the presence of the man she loved too well weighed heavy on her, stifling the pleasure of the senses”); nude beaches characterized by a concentration camp-like uniformity; and would-be libertines who miss out on sex because they are too busy plotting revenge for a nasty comment some stranger flung at them in a hotel bar—scenarios out of Seinfeld, rather than Sade.”

“Kundera didn’t quite predict the sex recession, or go as far as Michel Houellebecq in taking stock of the ravages wrought by laissez-faire sexual economics. Then again, well-made novels don’t so much supply answers as imply them. At a time when the phenomena he was exploring were already plain to see, if less grotesquely obvious than they are today, Kundera hit on hard truths about the aftermath of the sexual revolution. He was the melancholy prophet of a world where mimetic desire increasingly outstripped the concrete pursuit of pleasure.”

Read the whole piece at Compact Magazine here.

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